Friday, August 12, 2011

Monte Hellman at the Roxie

The Roxie screened cult director Monte Hellman's latest film in July. They programmed a retrospective along with it. The Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael played the same films (with the exception of Cockfighter) that week. Hellman was in town to Q&A after some of the screening although I didn't go to any where Hellman was also in attendance.

The adjective "cult director" is frequently associated with Hellman. His most famous film, Two-Lane Blacktop was a flop at the box office but cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorites. For a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hellman was at the vanguard of film directors whose style and aestheticism came to symoblize the best of American cinema of the period. That is to say, Hellman is firmly linked to his era if for not other reason his output has been meager in the subsequent decades.

I saw five Hellman films at the Roxie.

Ride in the Whirlwind starring Jack Nicholson & Millie Perkins; with Harry Dean Stanton; (1965)
The Shooting starring Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates & Millie Perkins; (1968)
Two-Lane Blacktop starring Warren Oates, James Taylor, Laurie Bird & Dennis Wilson; (1971)
Cockfighter starring Warren Oates, Richard B. Shull & Harry Dean Stanton; with Ed Begley Jr., Laurie Bird & Troy Donahue; (1974)
Road to Nowhere starring Shannyn Sossamon & Tygh Runyan; (2010) - Official Website


I wasn't too impressed with Hellman's latest venture. The premise of Road to Nowhere is that a director is making a film about a political scandal where the central character disappeared. The non-actress cast as the missing woman may or may not indeed be the missing person. The director begins a relationship with her and his technical advisor becomes obsessed with the possibility of her actually being the missing woman. There was some interesting film-within-a-film moments and the director had a penchant for watching classic films including The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck and Bergman's The Seventh Seal. However, the plot was confusing and muddled and the climax was underwhelming. Perhaps the same can be said of the other films in this series but for some reason, I allow more leeway with films from the 1970s.

My favorite film of the series was Cockfighter where Warren Oates plays Frank Mansfield, a "cockfighting trainer" or in other words, he fights and gambles on gamecocks or roosters. To guard against his own hubris, Mansfield has self-imposed a vow of silence until he wins a cockfighting championship. I can't even recall if there is voice over narration with Oates.

It doesn't matter because Cockfighter immerses the audience in the world of cockfighting including the actual matches (there are some graphic scenes which leads me to believe the cockfights were real), the cockfighting circuit, the trainers and gamblers and the rivalries. At the center is Mansfield is completely obsessed with the support to the point he won't marry his long-time, on-again/off-again lover who gives him an ultimatum - gamecocks or her. Given his singular pursuit, the film has a gritty and existential tone which suited me well - an elegy written in chicken blood.

Two-Lane Blacktop is Hellman's most well known film. It's similar to Cockfighter in that it introduces the audience to a lifestyle or subculture that they not likely familiar with. Also, the principal characters (Oates, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys) are completely immersed in their underground and illicit pursuits. Two-Lane Blacktop focuses on street racing with Taylor as the unnamed driver, Wilson as his unnamed mechanic and Oates, billed as GTO after the car he drives throughout the film.

Two-Lane Blacktop is more palatable than Cockfighter because of its content and because Oates is allowed to speak at length. Interestingly, Taylor and Wilson have few lines throughout the film. Oates, on the other hand, is continually talking about himself although the specifics continually change. By the end of the film, he has put himself in the role of the Driver & Mechanic who have been his rivals throughout the film. Part road film and part love triangle or even quadrangle, Two-Lane Blacktop has a more elegant tone but equally elegiac quality as Cockfighter. Hellman goes so far to end the film with the image one the screen looking as though it is a 35mm print being burned in the projector.

By the way, Ride in the Whirlwind, The Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter were Hellman's complete feature film output for a nine year period beginning in 1965.

Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting were shot back-to-back in Utah. Jack Nicholson appeared in both and has screenwriting credits in The Shooting which I preferred of the two. Both film are referred to as "acid Westerns" and were evocative of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. In Ride in the Whirlwind, the main character are fleeing a lynch mob. In The Shooting, the characters are chasing an unseen prey. The interactions amongst the characters were more interesting in The Shooting but ultimately both film employed minimalist techniques and adhered to the bleak existentialism which Hellman perfected in Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter.


Largely satisfied with the four films Hellman released between 1965 and 1974, I wondered why Road to Nowhere fell flat for me. Did Hellman's skills or discerning eye as a director waste away in the 37 years since Cockfighter? I doubt it. Apart from the times and mood changing since the Nixon administration, I think Hellman's milieu has to be more down market. Scruffy looking characters from the Old West, drag racers and cockfighters are how Hellman made his name.

Trapped not only by his reputation but by the quality of those four films, Hellman appears out of place in the hills of modern day Los Angeles, on location during a film shoot or filming an attractive couple cuddling while watching classic films on a flat screen TV. Monte Hellman doesn't make "inside baseball" films, does he? Maybe without the Hellman imprimatur, Road to Nowhere could have been judged more objectively and even enjoyed. From what I've seen, I like my Hellman films with more grit and less glamour.

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